The Whistle Blower
The appearance of Michael Caine’s name in a film’s billing has never been an indication of quality. He’s always been known for somewhat arbitrary tastes, and it’s only really since his second Oscar that there has been an upswing from the fifty-fifty chance that he’d appear in something decent. Much of that is down to Christopher Nolan, who positions him in each new film as a lucky charm. Appreciation of the actor was probably at a low point for much of the ’80s. He received (justified) plaudits for Educating Rita and Hannah and Her Sisters (and his first Oscar for the latter), but the perception was that he didn’t really care about material; just cash the cheque. This reached its nadir with Jaws IV: The Revenge, which Caine’s much-quoted anecdote that it paid for a house.
Like most such perceptions, there’s a fair amount of exaggeration involved in this. Maybe I’m a sucker for Caine, but I’ve never regarded him as phoning it in; even in some of his worst choices. I’m more dubious about an Oscar winning performance led by a distractingly ropey accent (The Cider House Rules) than much of the work that is generally regarded as forgettable. When it comes to mangling regionalities, he can’t quite carry off the blithe indifference to be found in his pal Sean Connery.
And the worst damage he did to his stock came in the late ’70s, rather than the ’80s, with the likes of The Swarm (a mesmerising performance, if only because there’s nothing else to focus on), Ashanti and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure suggesting a perverse pleasure in making awful movies. But the next decade was the period when he had absconded from the UK for tax reasons (ironically, since the incoming Tories would have made the situation much more appealing to him), and it went to reinforce the view that Caine was only about cash-grab cynicism. If most of his films from this decade are far from great, their general lack of profile also makes them ripe for rediscovery and re-evaluation. It seemed at this time that his films were expected to be bad and reviews might include a few qualifiers at best concerning Caine giving an acceptable performance.
He kicked off the decade with a horror-tinged triptych of Dressed to Kill, The Island and The Hand, and received the dubious honour of dual Golden Razzie nominations in the same year for the first two. But The Hand is the stinker of the three, The Island a not-without-merit curiosity and Dressed to Kill something of a minor classic (even if it Caine’s role is one of the most bizarre of his career). That, and several good choices highlighting his comic chops in the last half of the decade, aside we find a preponderance of espionage/conspiracy movies that tend to merge into one (they certainly did in my mind). Since his signature role as Harry Palmer during the ‘60s he had rarely set foot in the genre, but now we had The Honorary Consul, The Jigsaw Man, The Holcroft Covenant, Half Moon Street, The Fourth Protocol and, right at the end of this five-year cycle, The Whistle Blower. None of them even come close to the besmirching of Palmer’s good memory, when Caine donned the NHS spectacles for a couple of crappy reruns of his iconic ’60s role (this is the point where Caine claims he quit acting until Jack Nicholson came-a-calling; certainly, his roles in the late ’90s are uncharacteristically sparse). And, a few of them are actually quite good.
As something of a self-styled class warrior, it’s possible that Caine identified with his character here more than most; a working-class ex-serviceman, struggling to make ends meet, who uncovers the corruption of the privileged peers he trusted without question.
The Whistle Blower’s failings are not ones of premise. Julian Bond adapted John Hale’s novel about a father (Frank Jones, played by Caine) investigating the death of his son (Robert, Nigel Havers), a translator working for British Intelligence. The lead in to this sees Robert voice increasing concerns over the behaviour of the agency following the apprehension of a Russian mole. It appears the CIA is increasingly unconvinced that Britain has any grip on their secrets and may cut off the flow of information. A flustered British Intelligence is encouraging an atmosphere of distrust and reporting on colleagues. After Robert is found dead, apparently having fallen from his roof, Frank learns that he was due to talk to a journalist about his concerns.
Revisiting a number of ’80s productions recently, it’s very noticeable how strongly the British/US relationship of the period inspired negative commentary. The much-mooted, latter-day conspiracy relating to Tony Blair and WMD (at the behest of his “special relationship” with Bush) seems to have provoked barely a ripple of creative discourse, such is the apathy of the age. The decade was defined by protest and, in retrospect, it is interesting how cynicism towards the actions of the powers that be feeds into even the least antagonistic material (come on, it’s just a cheap spy movie with Michael Caine?) But, for superior British conspiracy fare, check out Defence of the Realm, A Very British Coup and Edge of Darkness, all of which have not very nice things to say about the relationship with our American cousins.
The depiction of the spy craft here is nothing if not prosaic, lacking even the nostalgic melancholy of George Smiley’s television outings. To an extent, the sight of the unvarnished, banal world in which Robert works is refreshing, and as a result believable (how often do you hear GCHQ referred to in movies?) But director Simon Langton, a television veteran making his first feature, seems tonally uncertain. One might think his work on Smiley’s People made him an ideal choice for further spy fare, but the leap from slow burn atmospherics to more standard dramatics leaves him at a loss. His grey, depressing England is authentic enough, but he has no feel for the material and how to present it; the film flounders under a TV director’s approach to pacing, and is further dampened down by unengaging visual palate. The latter is no impediment in itself, but you need a strong guiding presence to make the results cinematic; David Drury’s Defence of the Realm is a resolute success in this regard even though, if you strip away the mystery and paranoia, it has a much less compelling plot.
During the first half, until Caine takes centre stage, the various plot threads lack definition; Bond and Langton fail to interweave them coherently. Compare the surveillance scenes here to the spooky spying on Gabriel Byrne in Defence of the Realm. An elaborate ploy to extract information from the mole is rendered matter-of-factly, such that when the reveal comes it has the air of Mission: Impossible silliness.
Some have defended The Whistle Blower by suggesting it has been mislabelled as a thriller, but it is definitely of that genre. Langton just hasn’t balanced the elements, such that Caine’s affecting grief makes the father’s response the only dramatically engaging element. When scenes are strong, it is invariably down to two veteran thesps sparring with each other (conversely, some of the less experienced actors don’t fare very well). One can only assume Langton had a dissatisfying experience making the film, as he returned to TV and has not worked in cinema since (on the upside, his BBC Pride and Prejudice has a claim to being the definitive adaptation of the book).
While the latter stages are dramatically superior, they are the more problematic in terms of verisimilitude. Frank’s meeting with a high-level Russian spy (John Gielgud) provides an opportunity for some familiar exposition concerning the motivation for the upper classes (of the Anthony Blunt type) to betray their country. Caine and Gielgud are fine, but the scene doesn’t work; the dialogue is clumsy and the need for fireworks is shoehorned in. And that’s not mentioning the ease with which Frank accesses this man’s house.
In contrast, the matter-of-fact manner with which Frank is informed that any attempts to expose the actions of British Intelligence will be effortlessly quashed (including having him sectioned) is extremely effective. James Fox, in particular, makes an impression as a towering shit. But the Cold War hyperbole (nuclear Armageddon is inevitable; it’s just a matter of when, which is why it is essential to keep the US on side) is out-of-place in a film that is so low-key elsewhere. In the masterful Edge of Darkness, a couple of years earlier, it did seem inevitable. But you need to imbed that fear into the core of the piece, and into the tone of its production, to make it believable.
Bond’s script frequently over-indulges in expository dialogue and undermines his characters with stodgy or florid verbiage (“Their secret world, has put out the light of the ordinary world”, protests Robert; even given his dreamer credentials, it’s a bit much). It’s never too clear how much the mixed results are down to the book (which I’ve not read) surviving Bond’s best efforts to hobble it or the director’s ineffectiveness in translating it to screen. Probably a bit of both.
John Scott’s score is poor, even at odds with the drama. He does little to convince that anyone involved thinks they are making something special, ineffectually hitting only the most formulaic notes.
Of the cast, Caine convincingly runs the gamut from clipped disappointment with his son’s choices, to weary grief and then spitting rage. Havers is reasonably convincing as a naïve intellectual with his head in the clouds. But you never once buy that he’s Michael Caine’s son. Havers was an ’80s TV fixture (The Charmer, anyone?), attempting to branch out into a movie career at the time, something that never really took. Gielgud and Fox are dependably professional, as are Kenneth Colley and Caine’s The Ipcress File co-star Gordon Jackson, in his final film role.
The supporting player laurels go to Barry Foster as Charles Greig, the MI6 friend Frank served with in Korea. Foster had appeared in Langton’s Smiley’s People, but his most memorable role is probably the serial killer in Hitchcock’s Frenzy. Whenever he and Caine share a scene, The Whistle Blower is at its most effective, Caine gamely acting the straight man to Foster’s slightly effete familiarity. The scene where Frank extracts the truth from Charles by getting him drunk is easily the highlight of the film.
Unfortunately, it’s a full 45 minutes before Caine starts snarling. Once he’s in gimlet-eyed, raging mode there’s a level at which it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy. But it’s a shame to recognise there was potential for this to be much more memorable.